You Don’t Need a Title to Be a UX Professional

September 17, 2012

The idea for the title of this article came to me after listening to Mark Sanborn’s audio book You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference. In his book, Sanborn shows how, by improving little things every day, we can make a great contribution to customers and communities. According to his book, anyone—regardless of whether they have a particular title—can make a positive difference in their environment and organization.

On forums and groups on social networking sites that focus on user experience and usability, people quite often ask about how they can move from their role as a technical writer to that of a UX professional. They ask what they would need to know; what degrees, courses, or certifications they would need to have; and what companies would encourage such a transition. They seem to be looking for step-by-step guidance on how to make the transition from technical writer to UX professional.

As a technical writer myself, I’ve handled some of the responsibilities of a UX professional. So, I want to share my story to show how you can be a UX professional—without your necessarily having the title.

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The reality is that you don’t need to have the title of a UX professional or consultant to make a contribution in the field of user experience. If you are passionate about making a difference for the users who will eventually use the product you are working on and have the skills you need to do the work, that’s really all you need to contribute to the product’s user experience. Simply decide for yourself that this is what you want to do, no matter what title you happen to have in your organization.

In this article, I’ll give some advice to people who want to work as UX professionals. While most of these tips provide general guidance to anyone who wants to become a UX professional, some apply specifically to technical writers.

1. Forget about your title.

“Leadership is not about position—but passion. It’s no longer about image, but impact.”—Robin Sharma

It may seem challenging to start doing something different as part of your job—particularly if you’ve had your current position for a while. If you’ve been asked to take on some of the responsibilities of a UX professional, you may feel that you already have enough to do in your current job, have been doing it well, and don’t want to venture into the unknown. On the other hand, if you’ve been dreaming of being a UX professional, your current job may have been keeping you so busy that you never find the time to pursue your dreams. Or perhaps you may worry that you might step on other people’s toes if you start taking small steps toward taking on the role of a UX professional in your group or organization.

But the reality is that, once you start acting as a UX professional on a regular basis, your manager, your peers, and other people who are interested in user experience will notice the value that you’re providing, and they will be more than happy to work with you when you bring usability matters to the forefront as part of your day-to-day business.

2. Accept all the help you can get.

“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”—Isaac Newton

As passionate as you may be about user experience, you won’t be able to make the transition to becoming a UX professional all by yourself—particularly if usability is not a top priority in your organization or group. Don’t wait for someone to ask: Would you be interested in taking on the role of a UX professional? You might have to wait a long time for this to happen.

Look around and see who else on your team is interested in usability, user experience, and creating the best possible product for users. Are any other people on your team who share your passion for user experience and would like to team up with you? Or are there any groups in the organization that focus on user experience to whom you can talk? You will be successful as a UX professional only to the extent to which you can effect changes that make user experience and usability high priorities. So go ahead and ask for help achieving your goals.

3. Become a sponge for knowledge.

“You learn something every day if you pay attention.”—Ray LeBlond

Learn more about user experience. This part is going to be easy because you really have a passion for user experience. But if you have time to read just one book, I highly recommend About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin. This book has changed my perception of simplification, usability, and minimalism forever.

But don’t limit yourself just to reading books. There are plenty of opportunities for you to learn about the usability of your product by trying to use the product yourself, listening to customers who are struggling to use it, and evaluating similar products that have better usability.

4. Practice UX thinking.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”—Albert Einstein

What I mean by UX thinking is analyzing your daily tasks and asking yourself whether you are really acting as a UX professional in the various situations in which you find yourself. The new ways of thinking that you need to adopt may vary greatly depending on your current job. Since my personal experience is as a technical writer, I’ll use technical writing as an example.

As a technical writer, it’s easy to get caught up in your day-to-day writing tasks, checking them off your to-do list. Instead, you should look at each task and ask yourself: By completing this task, how am I ensuring the best possible user experience for this product, tool, or feature? Often, your answer will be: by improving the user interface and reducing the need for documentation.

5. Ask questions often—even dumb questions.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”—Voltaire

Asking what may seem like dumb questions is often necessary. To make sure that I don’t forget to ask such questions during design meetings, I prepare a list of them for myself. Then, I review my list from time to time to ensure my perspective on things stays fresh.

Such questions might be: But why do we have to ask the user for that information? or Can you explain this to me as if I were seeing this user interface for the first time?

By asking such questions on a regular basis, you can ensure that your team designs a feature or product in such a way that new users will immediately be able to use it—without having to read extensive documentation just to begin using it.

6. Just go ahead and do it! Act as a UX professional.

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”—Steve Jobs

That’s it! Easy, right? So, bottom line, don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be a UX professional. Don’t get stuck in whatever job title you may have. And never think that you cannot make a difference.

Instead, start using the skills that you already have and build on them by learning more about user experience every day. Team up with people in your organization who share the same passion for user experience that you have, and go ahead and create better products! Your customers will thank you. 

Further Reading

Cooper, Alan, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin. About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, 3rd edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2007.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Sanborn, Mark. You Don’t Need A Title to Be A Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference. New York: Crown Business, 2006.

Sharma, Robin. The Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success in Business and in Life. New York: Free Press, 2010.

Information Designer & Developer at IBM Canada

WISDOM Coach at WISE Girls Happy Women

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Delia RusuDelia has over 15 years of experience in technical writing, information architecture, usability, and user assistance. At IBM Canada, she creates documentation for a variety of platforms and users. She also designs and develops user assistance, user interface text, error messages, and context-sensitive Help. Her interests include creative writing, blogging, social media, Web design, and usability. Delia holds a degree in Computer Science. She has served as a volunteer judge for the Society for Technical Communication competition.  Read More

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